Monday, October 4, 2021

Tony Soprano and History


Tony Soprano and History

Peter Schultz


            Modernity is defined by a progressive view of history. That is, as someone once said: “The arc of history bends toward justice.” So, as time passes, the human situation improves, “progress” is made and, at some point in the future, we will arrive at the end of history and reside in the promise land.


            Tony Soprano shared this view of history until his panic attacks planted the thought in his mind that history isn’t characterized by progress. In fact, “The Sopranos” opens with Tony visiting a therapist because he has the idea that his situation is characterized not by an ascent but by a descent, that the world of “organized crime” is dying. Dr. Melfi, his therapist, says that Tony isn’t alone, that many Americans feel the same way about the United States.


            Questions that arise as a result of these speculations are: What is to be done? Given the descent of organized crime and the U.S., what should be done? Should attempts be made to “make America great again,” or should a new road be taken, a new project launched? Or should the descent be allowed to continue until it reaches “rock bottom” and a new way becomes a necessity?


            In typical American fashion, Tony wants to try to stop the descent by “re-forming” the mafia, by recovering the old ways, the ways of the founding fathers – as it were – of the mafia. As the show goes on, however, this project only seems desirable by ignoring that these founders were, like Tony and his contemporaries, flawed and their organization was fatally flawed as well. “Omerta” wasn’t as universally practiced as Tony wants to think, just as his father was not the man Tony wants to believe he was. His father’s brutality extended at times beyond what was necessary or justified, and it even extended to Tony himself. To be sure, his father left Tony to deal with his mother’s cruelty on his own, while he, the father, played house with his mistress. Nonetheless, Tony persists in thinking his father made him a better man. But as shown by the results of Tony’s attempts to deal with his son, AJ, as his father dealt with him – AJ attempts suicide – Tony is delusional about how his father’s brutality affected him. Tony never was able to admit to Dr. Melfi or himself the effects of his having witnessed his father chop off a person’s finger, which Tony remembers as being a pinky.


            So, Tony’s project to “re-form” his mafia by recovering the practices of the founders was doomed from the start as it was, in fact, delusional. As the show progresses, this becomes clearer and clearer, e.g., in Tony’s relationship with Christopher, in his relationships with other “made men” like John and especially Phil Leotardo, and even in his relationships with Meadow and AJ, as well as with his sister and his uncle, Junior. Tony ends up pleading with Phil to humanely, a pleading that Phil ridicules. Vito is brutally murdered for being gay, illustrating both the flawed beginnings of the mafia as well as that humanitarian appeals, appeals to justice, have no place in the mafia. Even Christopher is forced to approve the murder of Adriana because she talked to the FBI, while he was trying to escape his situation either by way of drugs or by becoming a movie mogul. By the end, Tony even ends up accusing Melfi of being immoral when she decides – on less than persuasive grounds – she can no longer treat Tony. That accusation illustrates how desperate Tony has become in his attempt to redeem himself, his family, and his organization.


            Tony does not understand that from the beginning, the mafia was a fatally flawed project, one that could not last because its injustices were bound to infect the organization itself. And no enterprise can last without practicing justice amongst its members, even or especially criminal enterprises. Without justice, there will always be power struggles over who should be “boss.” In criminal enterprises like the mafia, these struggles will turn deadly, just as in other enterprises where justice is discounted or ignored the struggles will destroy careers and ruin reputations. The “reasons” or excuses for these struggles might be charges of disloyalty or sexual proclivities, but the problem is the fact that justice has been discounted or ignored all together.


[Whether this has relevance for the US today, I leave it to the reader to decide.]

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